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Poker During And Post Pandemic: ICM

by Steve Zolotow |  Published: Sep 08, 2021


In the first two parts of this series, I discussed using a HUD (Head Up Display) and Push/Fold Charts. I know everyone is dying to read about my play in the US Poker Open, but there are two more tools that must be described, before I can get to actual hands.

Poker is a game of making the right decisions. To make good decisions, you need as much information as possible. When you are playing online, information about your opponents comes from the HUD. When you play live (or on a site that doesn’t allow HUDs), that information comes from observation and memory. Push/Fold Charts give you information about what hands should be played at every stack size and position.

Unfortunately, neither of these two tools factors in the payout structure. The Independent Chip Model (ICM) provides a way to factor payouts into your decision making.

Assuming you want to maximize your earnings and your return on investment (ROI) in tournaments, it is important to survive to the next payout level. There are players whose only goal is to win. They are willing to follow a strategy designed to increase their chance of winning, not one that increases their average earnings. Some are rich players who are seeking glory not money, others are players who make large wagers on winning. (It is very common for top players to make bracelet bets at the WSOP, for example.)

The first big jump in payouts, known as the money bubble, is obviously where payouts begin. In a $10,000 buy-in tournament, surviving the bubble is usually worth $15,000 to $20,000. This means you need to play tighter as the bubble approaches. But how much tighter? Furthermore, how much do you tighten up as you approach other pay jumps? What about at the final table?

Here is a simplified example of ICM decision making that I often use to illustrate this idea.

Assume the following payouts: First gets 54, second gets 46 and third gets nothing. The three players have chip stacks of 100, 100 and 1. Both of the players with 100 obviously want to avoid finishing third and getting nothing. The player with 1 chip is on the button, and the blinds are 5 and 10. The short stack acts first, and folds.

What should you do if you are the small blind? If you fold, you will be left with 95, while the other players will be left with 105 and 1. The short stack will almost certainly be broke soon. The large stack will have an advantage over you, since he’ll be ahead 105 to 95.

Suppose, however, you decide to play chicken, and raise to 50. Now if he folds, you will have 110 and he will only have 90. But he may decide to see if you are really committed by jamming over the top. Now if you call, one of you will be in the embarrassing position of getting nothing while the player with one chip sneaks into second. If you fold, which is almost certainly better than calling, the chip counts will be 150, 50 and 1. Now you are a big underdog to finish first, so you should have made a pre-commitment and moved all-in yourself. The other big stack would automatically fold. Even if he has aces, and thinks you have a hand like suited connectors, he will win less than 80% of the time. By calling he increases his chance to win the extra first-place payout, but he will also get nothing around 20% of the time. His equity is now .8 × 54 or 43.

By calling, he will average less than he would get by finishing second. It seems hard to believe, but yes, it is right to fold aces pre-flop in some very specific situations.

In real life situations, with a number of players and a variety of payoffs, calculations get very complicated. Can you take advantage of players who are playing too tightly or too loosely at any stage?

ICM attempts to quantify how much your strategy should change based on stack size and payout structure. ICM can be used to approximate equities for different strategies, but it makes assumptions of equal skill and position that may not be accurate.

You probably already know that the big stack can often jam or make a raise that appears to pre-commit him to going all-in and steal the pot from intermediate stacks that don’t want to go broke ahead of the short stacks. A rough summary of ICM suggests the shortest stack has to be willing to take chances to survive. Other short stacks may gain from knocking out a very short stack, but will want to avoid tangling with a big stack. Intermediate stacks always want to avoid the big stack until small stacks are eliminated.

Lastly, we need to look at Minimum Defensive Frequencies (MDF), and break-even points. Then we will have all the tools we need to start discussing hands. I know all this theory can get boring, but becoming familiar with it is necessary if you want to be a winning player. I promise that hands will start in the next column. ♠

Steve ‘Zee’ Zolotow aka The Bald Eagle or Zebra is a very successful gamesplayer. He has been a full-time gambler for over 40 years. With two WSOP bracelets, over 60 cashes, and a few million in tournament cashes, he is easing into retirement. He currently devotes most of his Vegas gaming time to poker, and can be found in cash games at Aria and Bellagio and at tournaments during the WSOP. When escaping from poker, he spends the spring and the fall in New York City where he hangs out at his bars: Doc Holliday’s, The Library, and DBA.